When the Boston Red Sox report for spring training, they'll officially embark on a 2017 season that they hope will result in their fourth World Series title since 2004.
Oh, by the way, the magic date is February 13.
That's when Red Sox pitchers and catchers are due to report to Fort Myers, Florida. Position players will report three days later. After that, all sorts of stretching, working out, assorted high jinks and, yes, even a few games here and there will ensue.
There's no telling what will happen. But at the least, we can preview it and offer a few predictions.
The Big Newcomers
With most of last year's AL East-winning roster due to return, the Red Sox didn't have many items on their offseason shopping list. So they went for quality instead, with the catches o' the winter being...
Chris Sale, LHP
The earth shook and thunder clapped in early December. That was from the Red Sox acquiring Chris Sale in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago White Sox.
Sure, they had to give up a four-prospect package highlighted by Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada and 105 mph man Michael Kopech. But in Sale, the Red Sox got back one of the league's very best starting pitchers.
Since 2012, the 27-year-old left-hander has racked up a 3.04 ERA and more wins above replacement than all starters not named Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer. Even in a 2016 season in which his velocity and strikeout rate took hits, Sale still dominated with a 3.34 ERA in 226.2 innings.
With him joining Cy Young winners Rick Porcello and David Price in Boston's starting rotation, Red Sox manager John Farrell is about to get his first sense of what it'll be like to be able to breathe easy three out of every five days.
Mitch Moreland, 1B
David Ortiz's retirement created a need for a left-handed hitter with power. The Red Sox made Mitch Moreland the answer with a one-year, $5.5 million contract.
The 31-year-old will match neither the 1.021 OPS nor the 38 home runs that Ortiz gave the Red Sox in his 2016 swan song. But with good numbers to the opposite field, Moreland could at least be better than expected at Fenway Park. And fresh off his first Gold Glove win, he'll certainly be an upgrade at first base over Hanley Ramirez.
Tyler Thornburg, RHP
The Red Sox had to give up Travis Shaw and well-regarded prospect Mauricio Dubon to pry Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers. Not cheap, but also not bad relative to the absurd prices paid to relievers on the open market.
Thornburg, 28, may not be elite, but he at least arrives in Boston as an overlooked gem. He put up a 2.15 ERA and struck out 12.1 batters per nine innings last season. Alongside the flame-throwing Joe Kelly, Thornburg profiles as a capable setup man for Craig Kimbrel.
The Big Storylines
When the Red Sox aren't gawking at their big new additions this spring, they'll be tending to other matters. Those include...
Life After Big Papi
For the first time since 2002, Big Papi will be nowhere to be found at Red Sox camp. He'll be busy enjoying his retirement—apparently by pursuing a new career as the Happy Gilmore of tennis.
There's now a noticeable void in Boston's offense, but it could be worse. The Red Sox had the No. 1 offense in baseball last year, and ESPN.com's Buster Olney thinks they still have the league's top lineup. Ramirez, Moreland, Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts surely would agree. Farrell would as well, for that matter.
Of course, Ortiz also left a leadership void. But a guy who would know isn't too concerned about that.
"We’re in good shape,” Pedroia told Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald. “I think, especially what David did leadership-wise with a ton of guys, he’s leaving us in good shape. We’ll be all right.”
Pablo Sandoval Back at Third Base
Now, this. This is a real question.
The Red Sox basically got nothing from Pablo Sandoval in his first year in Boston in 2015, as he put up a .658 OPS and struggled defensively. They then got absolutely nothing from him in 2016, in which he played in just three games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.
But with Shaw and Moncada out of the picture, the Red Sox don't have much choice but to entrust the hot corner to Sandoval. This will be the baseball equivalent to trusting Keith Moon with a Holiday Inn hotel room.
The good news is that Sandoval has given every indication that he's in good shape for the first time since signing his $95 million contract.
The bad news? Well, see above.
David Price Has a Score to Settle
As Sandoval looks to get his old job back, Price will be looking to get his groove back.
The veteran lefty didn't look like his usual ace self in the first season of his seven-year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox. Although he pitched 230 innings, he put up just a 3.99 ERA and allowed a career-high 30 home runs.
“Last year was the first time in my career I didn’t have fun when I was on the field,” Price told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. “When I’m pitching well, I’m smiling. There wasn’t a lot of smiling.”
Within that same interview, the 31-year-old also vowed to prove he can be successful in Boston. That process will start this spring. After that, anything goes.
Who's Behind the Plate?
Ah, yes, but who will Price be throwing to? Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart will vie for playing time behind the plate, and it sounds like each one of them has a shot at earning the starting gig.
“You've got three guys that can battle for an everyday job,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told Mastrodonato. “If you said right now who's the leading guy, it's Sandy Leon.”
After posting an .845 OPS in 2016, Leon can claim to have the bat. Vazquez can claim to have the glove and the arm. Swihart, a former top prospect, has a shot at the best of both worlds.
In short: This could be a fun competition.
Who's at the Back of the Rotation?
As good as the front three of the Red Sox's rotation looks, don't underestimate the back end. Fighting for the last two spots will be two 2016 All-Stars (Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz) and a former top prospect (Eduardo Rodriguez).
Dombrowski indicated in a chat with Olney that it's the two All-Stars who have the upper hand. That's fair. Although both ran out of gas at the end of 2016, Wright (3.33 ERA in 156.2 IP) and Pomeranz (3.32 ERA in 170.2 IP) both had successful seasons on the whole.
Don't sleep on Rodriguez, though. The lefty was quite good as a rookie in 2015. And after a slow start, he got back to being quite good with a 3.24 ERA in his final 14 starts of 2016.
Prospects to Watch
Alex Speier presented his list of the Red Sox's top 10 prospects at Baseball America very early in the offseason. Four of them were subsequently traded, which complicates this segment of the program.
Not to worry, though. The Red Sox still have...
Andrew Benintendi, LF
Andrew Benintendi found himself in the majors just a year after he was drafted by the Red Sox with the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft. And man, did he impress.
In 34 games, Benintendi hit .295 with an .835 OPS. He also showed well in left field, where he made one of the best catches of the season in Tampa Bay:
Technically, Benintendi is indeed still a prospect. And a very well liked one, at that. When Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com polled executives about the game's best hitting prospect, Benintendi was the winner.
The 22-year-old won't qualify as a prospect for much longer. The Red Sox's everyday left field job is his to lose, and it would be quite the upset if he lost it.
Sam Travis, 1B
Although the Red Sox are short on MLB-ready prospects after Benintendi, Sam Travis is one to keep an eye on.
A second-round draft pick in 2014, Travis is now a .303 hitter with a .364 on-base percentage in the minors. Although his power is less impressive, those numbers reflect a legit hit tool.
With Moreland and Ramirez ahead of Travis on the depth chart, regular playing time should come later rather than sooner for the 23-year-old. But if nothing else, he has a chance this spring to make an impression the Red Sox will remember if a roster spot opens up this season.
Dark Horses to Watch
The Red Sox are heading into spring training with few roster spots up for grabs. That's not the best environment for dark horses to steal the spotlight, but a few guys to watch are...
Rusney Castillo, OF
Remember Rusney Castillo? Let me refresh your memory: He's the guy who's crashed and burned since signing a $72.5 million contract in 2014.
Yeah, that guy. Because Castillo has struggled mightily and is now off the 40-man roster, he's a long shot to break camp with the Red Sox.
But maybe not as long a shot as everyone thinks. The 29-year-old was last seen hitting .392 in the Puerto Rican winter league. In speaking to Rob Bradford of WEEI.com, former Red Sox infielder Alex Cora chalked this up to changes that have occurred for Castillo both on and off the field.
Blake Swihart, C
Although Swihart will be in the mix for playing time behind the plate this spring, he's a dark horse because he has one thing Leon and Vazquez don't: options.
Beyond that, Swihart also has some development left to tackle after getting set back in 2016. The Red Sox's decision to move him to the outfield was questionable to begin with, and even more so after he suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
But don't count Swihart out. His two-way talent made him an elite prospect as recently as 2015, and he's still only 24. With a good spring, he might upset established order in Boston's catching depth chart.
Deven Marrero, INF
With only Josh Rutledge penciled in alongside Brock Holt, the Red Sox also have a backup infielder job that could be attainable this spring.
Deven Marrero would seem to have the best chance of stealing it. Although the 26-year-old has failed to live up to being picked in the first round in 2012, he's still a right-handed hitting infielder with versatility. With a hot spring, he could begin to look like a right-handed hitting infielder with versatility and some upside.
Robby Scott, LHP
The Red Sox bullpen mostly looks set. But given how badly he struggled in Boston down the stretch in 2016, Fernando Abad, it's fair to speculate, is on thin ice as the club's go-to lefty specialist.
As such, keep an eye on Robby Scott. The 27-year-old put up a 2.54 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2016 before breaking through with seven scoreless appearances for the big club at the end of the year. If Scott keeps it up this spring, he may be able to steal Abad's role.
A Few Bold Predictions
Let's quit the previewing and end with some predictions of the bold variety...
Chris Sale Will Have a Lousy Spring, Prompting Panic
After the price they paid to acquire Sale, I can only imagine the amount of handwringing that will be going on if he has a rough spring.
I'm also guessing I won't have to imagine it. Dominating in spring training generally isn't Sale's thing, after all. Per MLB.com, his career ERA in the spring is just 4.20, and he's struck out just 87 batters in 96.2 innings.
Will it mean anything when Sale has another lousy spring? Not at all. The freak-out will be real, though.
The Sandoval Question Won't Be Answered
The Red Sox's Sandoval experiment is an unnecessary risk that's short on assurances that it will be successful. So, I'm going to treat it as such.
It's great that Sandoval is looking good, but nobody has any idea how comfortable he's going to be in his new body on the field. It's also unknown if he'll be feeling any ill effects from last year's surgery.
Otherwise, it's just hard to have confidence in a guy who hasn't seen major league pitching in 10 months and who hasn't really hit major league pitching in over two years.
Since Shaw is no longer around to pick up the baton, I imagine the Red Sox will break camp with Sandoval at third base regardless. His leash, however, will be extremely short.
Other Than That, Things Will Be Fine
Careful not to burn yourself on this hot take, man.
In all seriousness, the Red Sox simply don't invite many bold predictions about this, that and the other thing. They have a deep, star-studded roster with a perfect mix of youthful and veteran talent, and it's all overseen by a front office and manager who have had the reins for a while now.
No alarms. No surprises. It's the best spring training experience a team can hope for.
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